Species Spotlight: Common Nighthawk
Common name: Common Nighthawk
Latin name: Chordeiles minor
Status under SARA: Listed as Threatened as of the 2010 assessment
Range: Found throughout the Americas except for the north and south extremities. Canada is home to the Common Nighthawk during the warmer months then they will migrate to as far as mid-Argentina to overwinter. You can find them in a wide variety of open-ground habitats that have lots of flying insects.
Life span: Relatively unknown, longest recorded was 9-10 years. Average lifespan is 5 years in the wild.
Size: Body length of 21-25cm, wingspan of 53-57cm, and a weight of 65-98g.
Population estimate: Canadian habitats make up for approximately 10% of global populations of nighthawks, which, as of COSEWIC 2007 assessment was estimated as 400 000 adults.
The Common Nighthawk is a master of camouflage. Its dark brown and speckled plumage makes it almost invisible when perched on the ground. Chordeiles minor is distinguished by its long, narrow, pointed wings, distinctive white stripe near the tip and a slightly notched tail. In the spring, perhaps the best way to recognize the species is to listen for its call. Nighthawks make sharp “peents” in flight sometimes followed by a strange booming sound that is part of their courtship ritual. The booming sound made by Common Nighthawks is made by wind rushing through their feathers as they dive.
C. minor uses a range of habitats from untouched grasslands, sand-dunes, peatbogs, riverbanks, marshes, rocky openings in forests, exposed mineral soils and gravel ridges. More recently, Common Nighthawks have been observed nesting in mining areas, at military bases, and on flat rooftops as a means to adapt to urbanization and habitat loss. The species’ chosen habitat is based on where it can hunt. C. minor is part of the aerial insectivores group of bird species. That means it hunts flying insects while flying such as beetles, moths and dragonflies. Common Nighthawks are crepuscular birds which means they hunt at twilight times including dawn and dusk.
Upon arrival on their breeding grounds, the males court the females with a display of flying skills accompanied by their famous booming noise as the winds rustles through their feathers. After mating, the females will lay their eggs in nests directly on the ground, unlike many birds who build nests. The females lay two eggs at a time, and can have a second brood. Luckily, the eggs are brown and speckled, making them camouflaged against predators. Incubation lasts up to 3 weeks, and after hatching the hatchlings depend on their mothers for another 16-18 days before attempting first flight. By one month, the offspring have fledged and therefore leave their mother.
Natural predators to the Common Nighthawk include foxes, owls, and Peregrine Falcons, however it’s their eggs that are most vulnerable to predation. Crows, ravens, gulls, and many mammal species will undoubtedly opt for snatching a Nighthawk egg for a good protein-filled snack. Despite this, the major threats to Common Nighthawks are habitat loss and agricultural development. Large-scale farms use more and more pesticides to rid their crops of insects for which makes up the Common Nighthawk’s diet. Fewer natural areas in which to create a territory, all grassland wildlife have had to find ways to adapt to urban regions and how to find food to survive. From being considered a common find within most Canadian communities, to now being threatened with having annual breeding bird surveys show a population decline with numbers decreasing every year.
What’s Being Done
While there are small-scale recovery projects focused on the Common Nighthawk given the common threat, efforts need to be focused on all threatened aerial insectivores. In addition, the Breeding Bird Surveys and Atlases and the Boreal Songbird Initiative are two major organizations set out to collect data from bird surveys and effect of habitat changes such as to developed plans for the future.
What You Can Do
Look for the Common Nighthawk in your neighbourhood and record your finding with our NatureHood App! This app tells a story about local wildlife, revealing patterns that can help local scientists and conservation practitioners in their work to protecting the species.
Join our NatureCaretakers program to help monitor bird habitats in you local Important Bird Area (IBA)! These volunteers help to monitor birds, assess habitats, and conduct conservation activities. The hands-on volunteer work help to build healthier bird communities.
Start at home – make your house and backyard bird-friendly! Follow these tips to ensuring the safety of birds that come to your neighbourhood.
Thanks to Nature Canada volunteer Tina-Louise Rossit for contributing this profile.